Fishing & Boating News

Lake Istokpoga nursed to lunker locker

by: Bob Wattendorf and Bill Pouder,

Don Hatcher with a beautiful Lunker Club bass from Lake Istokpoga.
Photo by FWC
TrophyCatch submissions should include a photo of the entire fish on a measuring board or tape.
Photo by FWC
(Jan. 01, 2013 - Lake Istokpoga, FL)

Lake Istokpoga is often overlooked by bass anglers seeking the notoriety of the Kissimmee Chain of lakes to the north or Lake Okeechobee to the south. However, 28,000-acre Lake Istokpoga, in Highlands County just south of Sebring, is turning into a top lunker producer.

Istokpoga is the fifth largest natural lake in Florida and has an average depth of 6 feet. Recent angler surveys estimated more than 1,000 bass over 8 pounds being caught in less than a year. Bass angler catch rates were relatively slow in 2011 but increased significantly in 2012, as evidenced by the lake's early prominence in the TrophyCatch angler recognition program, which began on Oct. 1.

Early in November, Don Hatcher documented, using all the required photos, an 8.8-pound bass that was 23 inches long to qualify for a Lunker Club (8-9.9 pounds) entry into the TrophyCatch program. His fish qualified him not only for the certificate and decal but also for a free T-shirt from Bass King Clothing and a drawing for a $50 certificate from Bass Pro Shops, Dick's Sporting Goods or Rapala, and the right to proclaim "My Trophy Swims in Florida!"

Lynn Ogle topped that fish a month later with a Trophy Club (10-12.9 pounds) entry that tipped the scales at 10 pounds 4 ounces and was 27 inches long. Besides bragging rights and the great feeling of knowing she'd released her trophy to grow and fight another day, she'll receive a long-sleeve T-shirt from Bass King, and two $50 gift cards, plus a framable certificate and window decal.

The next day it was Charles Beatty pushing "oh so close" to the Hall of Fame club (13 pounds plus, certified by an FWC employee), with a 12-pound 7-ounce, 26.5-inch-long beauty that he caught on an artificial lure. He was thrilled that he qualified for the Trophy Club, but had the fish exceeded 13 pounds and been certified as such, he would have received a free ($500 value) fiberglass mount of his fish from New Wave Taxidermy and a special commemorative display with a Fish Photo Replica in 3-D of the catch mounted above a "Sportsman on Canvas" image of his catch. Add to that a custom Pro Line fishing rod with US Reel bait caster, a Glen Lau DVD, $150 in gift certificates and entry into the Bass Hall of Fame at the Florida Bass Conservation Center in Sumter County. He would have really been celebrating then!

The good news is the fish was released. With a few more ounces of pre-spawn fattening, it may just be our first Hall of Fame inductee when the next lucky angler catches and releases it. Remember, the best way to participate is to go to in advance, register and learn the rules, so you know what equipment (camera, scales and measuring device) to have with you. Then once you catch and release your bass (8-12.9 pounds), or call the FWC to certify a 13-pound plus hawg, you'll just need to log in, upload the photos and spread the word to your network of friends that your trophy swims in Florida. Although, you don't have to register in advance, doing so makes you eligible for a drawing for a Phoenix bass boat powered by Mercury.

Bass fishing is excellent year round on Lake Istokpoga. April and October are great for cool weather and lots of bass. From January through April, bass are spawning in bulrush, cattail, and other vegetation over sandy lake-bottom areas that were enhanced during the 2001 drawdown. As a result, they will have a few extra pounds on them. Spawning bass can also be found around the lake's two islands: Big Island and Bumblebee Island. Flipping dark-colored, soft plastics in bulrush or pockets of submerged vegetation should be productive.

Quality trophy bass fishing in Istokpoga is no fluke. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has worked long and hard with local anglers and businesses to bring the lake back.

In the early 1960s, water-level stabilization began limiting water fluctuations, resulting in excess vegetation and organic build-up.This is a major detriment to natural habitat rejuvenation and flushing of Florida lakes.

These lakes historically experienced droughts that allowed muck to dry out and blow away, exposing a firm sand bottom that holds aquatic plants and provides bedding areas for bass and other sunfish. Subsequent high water levels would extend into the flood plains, allowing exceptionally strong-year classes of fish to develop.

Now, to ensure adequate water for irrigation, navigation and drinking water during droughts and to prevent flooding during high-water periods, mankind intervenes to preclude these extreme fluctuations. As a result, the FWC and other environmental partners must use alternate means to rejuvenate lakes.

From March through July 2001, Istokpoga benefitted by a drawdown and mechanical muck removal. A total of 1,308 acres were scraped and 2.4 million cubic yards of material removed from 21 miles of shoreline.

To maintain quality habitat, herbicide treatments and mechanical harvesting are used to treat 500-1,000 acres annually, targeting tussocks and plant monocultures to improve fish and wildlife habitat. This helps prevent muck buildup, and reduces the chance of major plant die-offs, which cause fish kills.

By 2003, the scraped areas responded with eelgrass, a highly desirable native aquatic plant. It became dominant. By 2009, acceptable fish habitat covered 9,375 acres or 33 percent of the lake. Twenty percent to 40 percent aquatic vegetation is ideal.

Stakeholders are actively engaged. In 1997, Lake Istokpoga was established as a Fish Management Area, and shortly after that the Lake Istokpoga Management Committee was formed at the request of the Highlands County Board of County Commissioners. The management committee consists of county and FWC staff and board-appointed representatives from local user groups (e.g., fishermen, guides, fish camps, homeowners associations, Audubon, etc.). The committee allows lake managers to present management actions to members for discussion and input.

In addition, the Friends of Istokpoga is a nonprofit group established in 1998 (, where management activities are conveyed to the group quarterly, including hydrilla treatment and habitat restoration plans. Friends of Istokpoga has a quarterly newsletter that includes routine input from the FWC.

The FWC also conducts annual angler (creel) surveys from October through June. To supplement that information, nonlethal electrofishing surveys collect fisheries data each fall, winter and spring. The 2012 surveys documented the highest largemouth bass success rate (0.82 fish per hour) since the drawdown.

Besides the aggressive habitat restoration program and extensive efforts to prolong the benefits and manage aquatic vegetation in the lake, the FWC has also used regulation management in an effort to help create a trophy fishery. Lake Istokpoga has a 15- to 24-inch protected (no-harvest) slot limit for bass with a three-fish daily bag limit, of which only one bass may be 24 inches or longer.

Several fish camps and four public boat ramps provide access to the lake. For information about lodging and amenities, contact the Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce (863-385-8448).

Management of Lake Istokpoga is a stellar example of the FWC using a variety of management techniques and soliciting public input to provide an exceptional fishery. Sign up for TrophyCatch today, and make plans to catch and release your own trophy to swim in Florida.

Instant licenses are available at or by calling 888-FISH-FLORIDA (347-4356).
Lynn Ogle's Trophy Club bass from Lake Istokpoga.
Photo by FWC
A photo of the entire fish on a scale, with the weight showing, is also required for TrophyCatch submissions.
Photo by FWC